On the morning after the greatest election day of his life, Jimmy Carter was sitting in his blue jeans and denim jacket in his mother's pond house, down that dirt road in Plains, and he was savoring the prospects of his presidency.
"I may be disappointed," Carter was saying on this, the first Wednesday in November 1976, "but I had the feeling last night, for the first time in quite a while, that it was a matter of mutual respect and that [reporters] weren't trying to trick me or something -- that I wasn't having every word taken apart and analyzed: 'What is this man going to do now that he's the next president of the United States?'"
All would be well with the Carter presidency, all would be well now that he no longer had to prove himself worthy and could get on with the business of making a campaignful of rhetoric come true. He felt it would be this way; he felt it would be so, in fact, from the first moment that he had faced the press after his victory had been declared.
"Just experiencing it . . . in the press conference last night, I felt more sure of myself," Carter was saying. "I was not grasping for something, and I was not trying to prove my leadership capabilities and so forth. . . .
"I was sure of myself."
Jimmy Carter envisioned presiding over a sweeping national reformation of sorts: a reorganization of all things federal, a reshaping of a tax system that he called a disgrace to the human race, a reinfusion of human rights into foreign policy -- a resurrection of a government as decent and compassionate and filled with love as the American people are.
He produced instead a presidency of good intentions and diligent work habits, of some dramatic successes and some all-too-apparent failures; but more than that, a presidency in which he seemed to be constantly "grasping for something" and forever having to "prove my leadership."
Just one year after he had talked with such optimism in his mother's pond house in Plains, even his closest confidant and father figure, Charles Kirbo, had come to recognize that the reality of the Carter presidency was not all that Carter and those closest to him had hoped it would be. After a couple of days of "just sitting and talking with folk" at the White House, Kirbo was sitting on a plane flying back home, musing about the way things were turning out.
"I know there's been a lot of talk about Jimmy being weak and not knowing what he's doing," said Kirbo, in that strapback molasses style of speech of his that pours out so slowly it bemuses even his fellow Georgians. "But that's just Washington talk. Fact is, he's an extraordinarily capable man who pays great attention to detail."
Attention to detail. It is both the essential strength and central weakness of Carter's presidential character; and after almost four years in office, in contrast to his two opponents, it is his presidential character, not his childhood or his formative political years, that offers the most telling insights into what another Carter term might be like.
It is his passion for detail, plus persistence and sheer physical energy, that enabled Carter to achieve what may have been the greatest accomplishment of his presidency: his historic peacemaking between Egypt and Israel, first at the Camp David summit, and then in the daring and resourceful Lone Ranger vigil of his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. Whatever his other shortcomings, this performance of energy, physical and intellectual, stands Carter in sharp contrast to his major opponent of the 1980 campaign.
But in so many other facets of his presidency, Carter's attention to detail came at an exorbitant public price: a loss of presidential leadership that doomed his ability to accomplish the things he had once felt sure he could do.
More than any other president in the modern era, Jimmy Carter had moved into the Oval Office without a conceptual framework of how the great issues of his time fell into place, both in relation to his own campaign litany of promises and goals, and in relation to the priorities that should be assigned to resolving these issues and how they affect one another.
He lacked the conceptual frame of reference that comes with a decade or two of sitting in Congress and having to take positions on the major issues of our time, or that comes with, even, a decade or two of speaking out on the issues as a national figure.
He had not devoted much of his professional life to thinking about the issues that are the making of any presidency. His had been a life of peanut warehousing and planning boards and filling up potholes in state roads up until the day he began running for president. When he entered into the White House, his greatest expertise was in the area of how to win elections: how to sit in parlors and legion halls and talk to people and make them feel, upon leaving, that their problems, frustrations and needs are the same as his; that he is at one with them, be they left, center or right.
Each issue had to be learned from the bottom up. So he put himself into seclusion after his initial flurry of leadership, (one walk down Pennsylvania Avenue; one fireside chat, au cardigan; one radio call-in show, au Cronkite). He then set about the business of engineering a presidency. He spent his considerable energies wading through Washington's great natural beds of fact sheets and reports, position papers and option papers on all things from the details of America's strategic forces to complexities of the federal tax system. No moment was wasted.
He listened to classical music as he worked; and since everything was part of his educational process, he had his personal secretary, Susan Clough, type up the day's scheduled selections of music and composers on an index card so that he could memorize what it was he was listening to.He spent long hours mired in paperwork and that seemed to be the way he liked to do the job. Once, while the NBC network cameras were filming a day at the White House, the microphones picked up a comment by the president observing over dinner that he had taken an hour out of the day to have a conversation with anchorman John Chancellor; the time could have been better used for paperwork, Carter said, but he added: "Maybe it will pay off."
His was the clockwork presidency. He was chief engineer and operating officer of the United States of America. His role, as he seemed to see it, was to study it all and then engineer the very best problem a country could want, send it up to Capital Hill for enactment, and then wait to sign the measure after congressional enactment.
It made for fine federal theology, but it is not the way Washington works. Consider the fate of Carter's effort to recognize the federal government. It tells much about Carter's presidential character and the mixed results his style of governing produced.
"The first piece of legislation I will send to Congress will initiate a complete overhaul of our federal bureaucracy and budgeting systems . . . . I believe the present 1,900 federal departments can be reduced to no more than 200, with a great savings in tax money. . . ." -- Jimmy Carter, in a 1976 campaign issues paper
"This is no job for the fainthearted. It will be met with violent opposition from those who now enjoy a special privilege, those who prefer to work in the dark, or those whose private fiefdoms are threatened." -- Jimmy Carter on government reorganization, in announcing that he was running for president, Dec. 12, 1974
Reorganization became, in a sense, a casualty of the clockwork presidency.
It was to have been the centerpiece of the Carter administration. His every speech as a candidate was laced generously with populism and hyperbole that created an aura of grand restructuring and sweeping reductions. It turned out to be considerably less.
Carter approached reorganization as though it was a problem of management and boxes. He approached it as though he did not realize that the scrapping of some departments and agencies and the combining of others would be met with "violent opposition from those who now enjoy a special privilege" and "from those whose private fiefdoms are threatened."
"Jimmy Carter's gut was right on all of the goals," says one official who worked on the effort. "Now, where he was wrong was the way in which he went about getting it done."
There are common memories among those who worked on the reorganization team of seeing the president in action. They are of the president's participation in those large and lengthy meetings, sessions with flip charts and color slides, where options were painstakingly reviewed. "He played an active role in our briefings," says one. "He would ask a lot of specific questions and absorb an incredible amount of details."
But there are no early memories of the president calling in a few congressional committee chairmen -- whose jurisdictions, so jealously guarded, would be intrinsically affected by any reorganization move -- and just sitting out on the Truman balcony for a night of easy drinking and gentle pursuasion. Nor are there memories of an evening of cruising the Potomac with the a chairman or two on the presidential yacht Sequoia -- there couldn't be, Carter sold the Sequoia early into his no-frills era.
"That's the sort of thing that was needed to get the job done in Washington," said one Carter official. "But it's just not Jimmy Carter's style. It's not his way."
Carter liked to tend to business. When he called in senators and representatives to ask for support for reorganization or tax reform or other measures, he framed his persuasion on what he considered to be the impressive merits of his proposals, not upon friendships or favors. The man who liked to campaign up close and personal ran his presidency largely by keeping people at a distance.
"I guess it sounds funny," said one adviser who has observed Carter long and well, "but deep down I just don't think Jimmy Carter likes people. He cares about people but I just don't think he likes to be with them."
Carter rarely socialized with his inner circle at a quiet dinner. His two closest advisers, Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan, have always felt free to call on Carter at any time on any business; but when they call, they call him "sir." He came to Washington with no friendships already in place in the capital, and after almost four years, that is still true.
Interlude: The tennis ball slammed off the racket of the man at the net and pounded into the ample chest of one of the players on the other side. The net man who hit the ball, White House speechwriter James Fallows, who was teaming in this game with Hamilton Jordan, quickly apologized to his victimized opponent, Bert Lance. Lance's teammate, the president, also offered some appropriate words. "If you'd managed to get out of the way," the president said to Lance, in a somewhat cooler than matter-of-fact tone, "the ball would have been out."
Minutes later on this fall 1977 day, their game over, Lance and the president walked off the court by themselves, and the president's best friend in Washington, then beset by banking scandal, said he was going to resign.
"When the president lost Bert, he lost his best friend in town and his best hope of really making things work in the White House and on Capitol Hill," said one presidential adviser. A number of Carter efforts, especially reorganization, suffered, as the Carter people assess things.
Carter had wanted his friend Bert Lance to oversee reorganization and sell the effort on Capitol Hill and to the press as part of his duties as director of the Office of Management and Budget. (Lance, a commanding personage, is not one of the great detail men of his time. He often played a pivotal role in press briefings; after being asked a question, he would pivot to one of several aides stationed behind him, get the appropriate fact, and then pivot back to the microphone and divest himself of it, mixing in his own colorful and often witty addendum.)
When Lance fell victim to the scandal over his past management of the National Bank of Georgia, Carter shifted the mantle of reorganization salesmanship to Richard Pettigrew, who had been the speaker of the House in the Florida legislature and had shepherded reorganization there. But Pettigrew was not the president nor was he the president's close friend; he was hard working and capable, but he was just a presidential aide.
Pettigrew met alone with Carter on his first visit to the White House, but mostly, after that, he consulted with the president by memo.
Eventually, civil service reform, which really was not even part of the reorganization concept at the beginning, emerged as the centerpiece of the Carter reorganization. It uprooted no chairman's turf; it was just a catalytic converter on the great federal engine. c
"We had an agenda, but everything else got stuck in the mud -- and civil service reform just kept going ahead like a Patton tank," says a Carter official who worked on reorganization.
The Department of Natural Resources (built around the Interior Department) and the Department of Community and Economic Development (replacing Housing and Urban Development et al) went nowhere.
Reorganization was not devoid of accomplishments. While there was no grand restructuring, a few operations, such as emergency services, were merged into a single umbrella agency.
After two years of whittling, they did cut the number of government units -- not to the 200 Carter had promised -- but back to 1,434, largely by getting rid of a number of those obscure commissions whose existence or nonexistence did not significantly affect the way government delivers.
Two huge rolling blackboard calendars dominated the office of the president's chief speechwriter, James Fallows, back in the fall of 1977, the first year of the Carter presidency.
"What are we doing?" Fallows said, repeating the question a reporter had just asked. He answered by sweeping his right hand toward the blackboards: December's squares were all empty; November's squares had only three entries -- one of them was a turkey, drawn in the holiday square of Nov. 24; another was a dollar sign, drawn in the square that is pay day."Well, that just about says it," Fallows went on. "There's not much being done out here at all."
The speechwriters had been putting in long hours and full days, but they had not been working, in that first year, on the sort of major presidential speeches that can be the source of presidential leadership and national inspiration. By that time, Carter had given just 13 formal speeches -- far fewer than any of his modern predecessors during a comparable time span -- and of those, few could be considered major.
Carter had been putting in long hours and full days too, behind the iron bar fencing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But he was not spending his time setting themes and giving direction to the nation he was trying to lead. He was not telling his people where he wanted to go and how he wanted to get them there. Thus he gave one fireside chat and never got around to giving another, although he had once thought this would be his finest format for communicating to the nation. The speechmaking calendar had fallen victim to the clockwork mind.
Much later, Fallows resigned in disillusionment. "I came to think that Carter believes 50 things but no one thing," Fallows wrote in a magazine article for The Atlantic. "He holds explicit, thorough positions on every issue under the sun but he has no large view of the relations between them, no line indicating which goals (reducing unemployment? human rights?) will take precedence over which (inflation control? a SALT treaty?) when the goals conflict. Spelling out these choices makes the difference between a position and a philosophy, but it is an act foreign to Carter's mind." Fallows added: " . . . Whenever he gave us an outline for a speech, it would consist of six or seven subjects ("inflation," "the need to fight waste") rather than a theme or tone."
Shortly before the president's 1979 State of the Union address, the White House high command was convened especially to come up with a theme to express what they had been doing for the past two years. They settled on "New Foundation;" it was used once, but quickly abandoned. And the president's media adviser Gerald Rafshoon eventually provided a detailed explanation of why."Who needs underwear jokes?" he said.
In the snows of New Hampshire more than four years ago, Jimmy Carter offered up not a theme but a political compact. "I don't intend to break a single promise," he said in Manchester on Feb. 10, 1976, in search of his first presidential primary victory. "I'm giving you my word of honor." Later, he came up with a shorthand: "And you can depend on it."
It is the way of the Carter presidency that, deep down, Jimmy Carter probably always believed this to be so. It is also the way of the Carter presidency that Carter's advisers painstakingly recorded and counted each and every promise Carter made back there on the other side of the looking glass, on the campaign trail -- and then dutifully presented a checklist to the public and to their own political enemies. He has been catching cannonballs amidships ever since.
In the tour years of his presidency, Jimmy Carter came to recognize many of the shorten to suit him) by others. He has marked this years with occasional public testimony and confessional, at times confounding a people unaccustomed to the ways of witnessing and untrained in absolution.
So there he was, after the politico-religious experience of his retreat at Camp David, telling the nation not only of its malaise but also of its misfortune in have a president who has been a poor leader. And on the eve of the Democratic Convention, sitting with Dan Rather before the CBS cameras of "60 Minutes," he filed out a report card on his presidency -- and gave himself modest to mediocre grades.
Dan Rather: . . . Foreign policy?
President: Dan, this is a little embarrassing, because I'm highly predjudiced . . . You put me on the spot. I would say maybe a B or a C plus on foreign policy. . . .
Rather: Overall domestic policy?
President: Under the circumstances, I think about a B. The actual results, maybe a C.
Rather: On energy specifically?
President: Very good . . . I'd say an A in that. . . .
Rather: On the economy?
President: Well, that's what I was really referring to about the actual results, because the inflation rate and unemployment are too high. And that was the C that I gave myself before.
Rather: And on leadership?
President: . . . Reasonably good. Maybe a B. I don't want to be held on account of those scores. I'll see what the American people say in November.
"That damn report card," an adviser to the president was saying the other day. "I was afraid I'd have to hear about it throughout the campaign." And, laughing, added, "But that's Jimmy: just your typical quiet, shy type."
Jimmy Carter is the self-effacing author of the autobiograph, "Why Not the Best?", and in that paradoxical suggestion, perhaps, lies the essence of the way he has conducted his presidency and the greatest good it produced.
Carter has not been a president so wrapped up in himself and his image and his place in history that he let it dominate his actions. There is little in his character of the self-centerdness that seemed a part of the every decision of some of his recent predecessors, such as the one who used to emblazon his mongram, "LBJ," on everything within his line of sight, and the man who bugged himself in the name of history and titled his memoirs, "RN."
It had fallen to Jimmy Carter to preside over America at a unique time -- the post-Vietnam era, in which the United States had lost a a measure of its international respect; and the post-Watergate era, in which the nation lost its respect for its leader but then found a new and vital respect for itself as it weathered this crisis within.
The crises of the Carter years have been of a different sort. There was the energy/economy crisis, a problem with an impenetrable quality that did not lend itself to solutions that can be championed in placards and protests and chants. And the crisis hot yet passive, that did lend itself to placards and protests and chants, but all born of jingoism that promised no resolution at the end of the tunnel. Carter grappled with these crises in his clockwork way, and his efforts have been marked more by frustration than success.
But it is the measure of Jimmy Carter that perhaps the greatest legacy of his presidency, be it four years or eight, came because of an effort that he initiated at clear risk, and almost without regard, to how he would be judged by history -- his effort to bring Israel and Egypt to peace.
When he flew to the Middle East back in March 1979, he went despite the unanimous judgment of his foreign policy advisers and leading experts in Congress that he should not go.
Summitry, after all, was not conducted that way. He was the president of the United States, yet he was going to play the role of a mere mediator, shuttling between two countries that had spent more than three decades at war. He had no assurance of success, and the prospect was high that he would return home judged by history to have been naive and a failure. All six of his predecessors, after all, had known better; they had approached the prospect of peacemaking in a manner that was carefully planned and controlled -- through three decades of failure.
Carter had simply said he was going, that the personal effort had to be made. And even in the last hours of his mission, it seemed that he too would produce only one more failure. When the talks broke down in Jerusalem, on the last evening, Hamilton Jordan recalls: "I was sick to my stomach -- literally, that night. It was all over. . . . we had tried and failed."
But the president wanted one last chance at forging an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. So he delayed his departure for one day and offered one more proposal to Menachem Begin in Jerusalem. The he flew to Cairo and put the plan to Anwar Sadat in the most unlikely tableau: a hastily arranged conference at a make-shift summit, an airport VIP pavilion. Carter conferred with Sadat, and with Egyptian at his side he telephoned Jerusalem and had some last words with Begin. Finally they emerged, stepping out into a crisp blue-sky day, and from the grim look on Sadat's face as they approached the waiting microphones, it appeared that all had been lost once again.
Carter gestured for Sadat to speak; but Sadat merely gestured that Carter should do the talking. And so he did. His words were direct and without rhetorical flourish.
"I am convinced that now we have defined all of the main ingredients of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and which will be the cornerstone of a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East," the president said in a voice too weary for elation. There would be some significant ups and a few shattering downs in the years ahead, but nothing could take away from that moment on the airport tarmac in the Middle East.
Jimmy Carter had said his peace.